Since mad cow disease turned up in the United States late last year, traced to a cow imported from Canada, federal regulators have issued rules to prevent the spread of the fatal disease, focusing on limiting beef imports, testing and other measures to protect the domestic herd.
Now, the Food and Drug Administration is addressing how the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, might be transmitted through cosmetics, soaps, dietary supplements and certain food items, such as sausage casings.
_____Mad Cow Disease_____
Blood Transfusion Linked to 2nd Human Case of Mad Cow (The Washington Post, Aug 6, 2004)
Errors Found in USDA Mad Cow Identification (The Washington Post, Jul 15, 2004)
USDA's Mad Cow Detection Challenged (The Washington Post, Jul 14, 2004)
FDA Announces Prohibitions on Some Cattle Parts (The Washington Post, Jul 10, 2004)
USDA Expands Mad Cow Inquiry (The Washington Post, Jul 3, 2004)
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The consuming public may not realize it, but a bovine is behind many beauty products and foods that might not be thought of as beef-based, such as candy, yogurt, cake mixes, mayonnaise and soups. The small intestine, for instance, is the only way to make some natural sausage casings.
So the FDA issued an interim rule in July that bans the use of domestic or imported "specified risk material," which includes the brain, skull, eyes, spinal cord and other organs from cattle 30 months or older, in many products under its jurisdiction. Also prohibited is use of the small intestine of all cattle, material from disabled cattle and from cattle not approved for human consumption. Records must be kept to certify that prohibited material didn't get into any of the products.
Some of these banned items are byproducts of slaughtering cattle and are important to the manufacture of soap, lotions, gelatin capsules and supplements.
"In all of these cases, it's a disease that is always fatal, and we don't know the infectious dose or the route of infection," said an FDA consumer safety officer, explaining the rationale for the rule. She said risk to the public is reduced if the FDA and the Department of Agriculture have a uniform policy on which bovine materials might be pathways to the disease. The FDA is reviewing comments on that rule.
Most of the affected manufacturers say the likelihood of the disease being transmitted though their products is infinitesimally small.
John Hathcock, vice president for scientific and international affairs of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade group for the diet supplement industry, said supplement makers already avoid known sources of problem materials. Glucosamine chrondritin, used for arthritis, for instance, is highly processed and comes from the hoof, hide and bones of the animal, which are allowed under the rules.
Cosmetic manufacturers and makers of soap and detergent breathed a sigh of relief when the FDA exempted tallow derivatives and other kinds of tallow from the rule. The rule said tallow derivatives, such as fatty acids and glycerin, are the predominant cattle-related product used by the cosmetics industry. But manufacturers also use albumin, brain extract, brain lipid and other cattle-derived products.
What the FDA is trying to safeguard against, it said, is the application or ingestion of cosmetics made from prohibited parts, which may create a route for infection. It said it could cost the cosmetic industry up to $18 million to find alternatives for some of the ingredients it uses.